Category Archives: Innovation

There’s a first time for everything: the TA Initiative summit; Nairobi, Kenya

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Veronica Mahiga of Unilever and Charles Oboth of Gulu Agricultural Development Co

On May 14-16, Acumen held its first summit of social enterprises and global corporations to explore opportunities for collaboration aimed at expanding access to critical goods and services for poor communities in East and West Africa. The event was the formal kick-off of the Technical Assistance (TA) Initiative, a partnership between Acumen and Dow launched as a Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative.

The event in fact represented many firsts:

  • The first time Acumen had launched a formal effort to provide technical assistance grants to social enterprises
  • The first time Acumen had partnered with a network of corporations on technical assistance opportunities
  • The first time we brought together leading corporations and pioneering social enterprises to identify common ground and complementary strengths in the development of more inclusive and sustainable markets. Image

Godfrey Mwindaare of Acumen, Dorcas Onyango of The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, and Yulanda Chung of Standard Chartered

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Ross McLean of Dow Chemical at site visit with Acumen Investee, Sanergy

Though the TA Initiative Summit ended on May 16, it has left us with great momentum and some valuable insights. The Summit was truly, in the Acumen spirit, an experiment—a chance to learn by doing. It required a leap of faith from the attendees, from the ten social enterprises that joined from across East and West Africa, and the corporate participants who joined from Michigan, Johannesburg, Dubai and London. The corporate participants came for a chance to learn and identify new opportunities for collaboration between corporations and social enterprises and left filled with ideas for working together. The enterprises were given an opportunity to network with potential corporate partners, and apply for technical assistance grants earmarked for this group.

What became evident during the summit was the desire of the 40 or so participants to make the most of the time together. It was palpable during the active break-out discussions, the buzz in the room during breaks, and the follow-up from many of the participants since. Though the most important indicator for success will be what happens after the summit, we have already heard great feedback from participants that the opportunity to explore partnership opportunities across the social enterprise and corporate worlds was a unique and valuable one. Dozens of commitments to follow up were created at the summit, and we will be going through them and following up with participants in the days and weeks to come.

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Alden Zecha of Sproxil, adding a new follow-up idea to the wall.

Our tremendous thanks go to all who joined, who took a chance to explore a critical new frontier in the spread of solutions to global challenges. And especially to Dow Chemical, our partner in the Technical Assistance Initiative, for taking this journey with us.

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Eric Martin of Cambridge Leadership Associates, the author, and Bo Miller of Dow Chemical

– Yasmina Zaidman is Acumen’s Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships

This blog first appeared on the Acumen blog

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Filed under Innovation, Partnerships, Patient Capital, Social Impact, Sustainability

The Magic of Partnerships

I feel like I hear that word so much more often now that I am in the Partnerships business. I was recently at a conference in Washington DC where I learned that helping major corporations partner with non-profits is a virtual industry. If that’s the case, then I am proud to say that once again I find myself a novice on a steep learning curve. And as is my wont, I will proceed without the benefit of extensive experience so much as a passion for finding the most direct route to doing something that has an impact. So, when I was asked by Andrea Useem to comment in an article for Devex on the subject, I was happy to share my experience in the wild frontier of partnership building. Here’s the piece, and I am truly honored to be quoted among peers who are making the term “partnerships” really mean something by focusing on impact and long-term strategic collaboration. http://www.devex.com/en/news/5-keys-to-effective-partnerships/79643

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Michele Jolin – A policy shaper and lifelong mentor

Today I continue my series on Celebrating a Whole Life, which shares what inspires me about women I’ve met who live their lives creatively at a time when we often end up stuck in a conversation about trade-offs vs. having it all. Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on the topic from a few months ago again stirred the pot, yielding what I thought was a welcome flurry of conversations about the choices women make and the context in which they make those choices. I won’t dive into what I thought about the article, but I will say that I believe we are just at the beginning of a period when we are able to recognize versions of success that defy the traditional expectations of both professional and personal achievement. When we measure achievement based on things like meaning, fulfillment, purpose, and yes, happiness, and not only on title, position, or the ability to sacrifice all for family. Each post in this series is a celebration of women who are making bold choices and doing so in a way that is imbued with a true spark of joy.

Michele Jolin was perhaps the first woman I thought of when I decided to write this series. She joined Ashoka about a year after I did over a decade ago, and arrived just after having served as the Chief of Staff for President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. It was the most impressive title I had ever heard, and I knew before I even met Michele that she was a star. Once I did meet her, she exploded any notions I had of what it means to be a very smart, very accomplished, very-important-person. She was ridiculously warm, accessible, and committed to sharing her own stories (of success and failure) to help women that were coming after her to navigate both professional and personal pathways.

I was working as the associate for Ashoka’s Environmental Innovations Initiative at the time, and her job was to lead a parallel effort in education, an issue about which she was passionate.  I immediately sought out an opportunity to work with her on a gathering of Ashoka Fellows from around the world all focused on education which would take place in South Africa. I saw it as both an opportunity to get out into the world and close to the Ashoka social entrepreneurs, but also as a chance to learn from Michele.

Throughout this project, and particularly during out time together in South Africa, I saw in Michele someone who was at ease with her own leadership – able to respectfully facilitate a group of strong-willed social innovators with diverse opinions about how to improve education and protect children,  and then take insights from those discussions and push them to the highest levels of policy change. She blended hard and soft, showing the patience required by this diverse community of Ashoka Fellows and the discipline to move things forward when needed.

I have tried to emulate these qualities since, but the greatest lessons I learned from Michele came not from a few months together planning a gathering of social entrepreneurs. They have come from having stayed in touch for over thirteen years, and being privileged to have watched her make choices about her life, career and family that have been a model and an inspiration to me. She is someone who truly deserves to be celebrated for building a whole life when at every moment she has been faced with tremendous opportunities and has chosen carefully and wisely in order to create a mosaic of priorities that fit together beautifully.

When I first met her, she seemed to be at a critical juncture, shifting from a period of prioritizing her career (which had obviously paid off) to prioritizing her personal life and her desire to start a family. At her wedding, and then later meeting her first child, I saw in her a wisdom to go after those things she valued with focus and passion, whether it was an opportunity to shape economic and social policy, or start a family. I observed with keen interest when she developed a flexible schedule at Ashoka, allowing her to continue to have an impact on an issue that mattered to her, while being present for her family the way she wanted to be.

When I had my first child, she came to see me with her three children in tow, and I was again inspired by her willingness to embrace the chaos of a large family while still relentlessly pursuing opportunities to shape policy and champion social innovation.

I was perhaps never more inspired by her, though, than when she told me she had decided to take one year away from work at a moment when the demands of her life made her feel like she needed to make a shift. Her clarity and confidence to do what was right for her and her family, trusting that she would pull all the pieces together again when the time was right, has stayed in my mind as a hallmark of what it takes to follow a unique path in life.

Michele is someone who has worked on both the domestic and international fronts at the highest levels to create lasting positive change. She has also stood as someone who fearlessly makes her family a priority, and she has been a friend and a role model that has continuously opened up new worlds of possibilities for me. For that and so much more, I celebrate her.

Below are Michele’s responses to my five standard questions:

1.       How do you define success?

One word: Balance.

2.       What is your greatest struggle?

Guilt:  Feeling guilty about never having enough time for friends, kids, family or work.

3.       What are you proudest of?

My 3 children.

4.       Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?

My 3 children. My oldest because she is determined, big-hearted and brave; my middle because he is imaginative, free-spirited and fearless; my youngest because she is strong, resilient, fun-loving, uninhibited and hilarious.  Also, Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril Mooney (and many other social entrepreneurs around the world) because she is optimistic, effective and passionately focused on making life better for the most vulnerable children.

5.       If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?

Sleep.

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When do you know enough?

During a recent workshop with the Op-Ed Project, a program launched by Echoing Green Fellow Katie Orenstein that is bringing more women’s voices into public discourse, I struggled with an exercise designed to help the participants talk about our areas of expertise. In the workshop with me was a stunning array of women with tremendous accomplishments under their belts.

The exercise was simple, I thought at first, just a fill-in-the-blank exercise. My name is Yasmina and I am an expert in _______ because _________. The only instructions were to make it narrow, specific and short. Little did I know that I would struggle so mightily with this simple task, even after watching over a dozen women go through the exercise before it was my turn.

Make it narrow. Sounds simple enough, but I couldn’t do it. I was so worried about not communicating the breadth of my knowledge, that I picked an area of expertise that was both hard to communicate, and far from unique. It was something about helping entrepreneurs solve major global challenges. Huh? One by one, each woman struggled to state one area of expertise that was narrow, and in which they had more expertise than others in the room.

An expert in International Affairs? No, try “I’m an expert in backpacking across Kyrgyzstan as a journalist.”

An expert in children’s literature? No, try “I’m an expert in Free to be You and Me.”

As I listened I found these new answers painfully narrow. Yet the revised answers made me far more curious to learn from these diverse accomplished women. And of course, one can be expert in lots of different things. But why bother figuring out how to describe a narrow expertise? Because someday, you may need to share what you know with someone else, and it they will probably want to know something specific. But as I try to think about what I know that makes me some kind of expert, it seems impossible to think of anything for which there aren’t 5 people I know that have deeper expertise. So maybe there’s another way to get at this. In the past few weeks several people have asked me to speak to them to share my expertise (who knew?). All of these people are working on projects with real social impact with organizations I deeply respect, and I haven’t hesitated to share with them what I know.

I have a momentary pause – do I know enough to be of assistance? And then I decide I’ll let them decide. I’ll share what I know, no more, no less, and they’ll decide if it’s helpful. They may not reveal to me whether it is truly useful, but worst case scenario, they’ll know I tried to be helpful. And I’ll learn a little more about what I know. Because whether or not I ever figure out what I’m an expert in, I do want to learn how my knowledge can help others.

So, after my recent conversations with people who seemed interested in what I know, here’s take two:

My name is Yasmina and I’m an expert in how to tell the story of a social enterprise because I’ve been working with social entrepreneurs on 5 continents for 15 years, helping them share their stories at events, through media and in academia.

It’s a start.  What’s your expertise? Remember, narrow. specific, short.

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Your Coffee, Their Lives, Our Planet

 

(originally posted on Acumen Fund’s Blog)

I recently attended a conference on “Sustainability as a key factor for mitigating risk in agricultural supply chain finances,” co-hosted by the Rainforest Alliance and Citi Foundation. A pretty specific topic, for sure, and you may be asking yourself, “how many people are there trying to figure that out?”

Well, you’d be surprised. There were at least 80 people there, and potentially many more that would have come if they could. Why, you may ask?

A simple answer, really: a lot of the things that people consume come out of the ground – coffee, tea, chocolate, cotton, and almost everything we eat. What many don’t realize is that in the majority of the world, the people who grow stuff are among the world’s poorest and the way commodities are produced is having a bigger and bigger impact on the environment. Our global supply chains now matter more than ever.

Most of the world’s poor are small scale farmers. And a major reason they remain poor is because they struggle to get their products to market. Even when they do, because of a multitude of reasons – lack of transportation infrastructure, lack of access to capital, lack of accurate market information – they are often abused by exploitative middle men in the process and fail to capture the true value of what they produce.

At the same time, conventional agricultural practices are creating a perfect storm of environmental challenges: decreasing water tables, loss of arable land, deforestation, loss of habitat, and pollution from pesticides and fertilizers.

People need the stuff that comes out of the ground, but we also need to get it in a way that enables producers to have stable and adequate incomes, and that allows the environment to sustain life in the long-term. Without both conditions, the system cannot be considered sustainable. One of the best ways to achieve both is to develop new supply chains and new business models that fairly compensate farmers and reward sustainable agriculture. At the most basic level, engaging smallholder farmers – farmers with tiny plots of land – in global agricultural supply chains may be one of the most powerful ways to reduce global poverty and ameliorate environmental degradation.

So things like Fair-Trade, organic, and certified sustainable are not just hip new ways to show you care – they are actually the beginning of an effort to transition our agricultural systems into a means to meet customers’ needs, but also address critical social and environmental issues.

What’s exciting is that major brands and retailers— Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks, Unilever –recognize the value of sustainable supply chains (short hand for this effort). But huge challenges stand in the way of improving these practices, especially among the millions of disaggregated smallholder farmers. OK- reality check – it’s anything but simple. Tensie Whelan, who leads the Rainforest Alliance and co-hosted the event, mentions the growing role of companies in her blog on the event:

Hundreds of companies are working with civil society (and occasionally, governments) to help millions of producers to invest in sustainable practices-helping them to become more viable small businesses and, not incidentally, more stable long-term suppliers.

A few weeks ago I joined these 80 people from companies, financiers, foundations, non-profits, and academics, because Acumen Fund has developed a portfolio of companies dedicated to improving famer productivity, and we’ve begun to find innovative business models that we think will contribute tremendously to the advancement of socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. Companies like Global Easy Water Products, which distributes low-cost irrigation technology tailored to small-holder farmers in India, and Western Seed, which sells high-quality hybrid seeds to farmers in Western Kenya who for generations have used farm-saved varieties.  Or companies like GADCO, one of Acumen Fund’s newest investments from our new operation in West Africa, which engages smallholder farmers in Ghana in the production of rice for local markets, increasing their productivity through improved inputs and linking them to a higher value market by managing the whole supply chain.

I was there to better understand how we can partner with companies, NGOs, multi-laterals, to make sure that these innovations truly achieve scale, both for individual companies in our portfolio, and for the broader network of global supply chains.

My big Aha at this conference is that a challenge this complicated takes the networks, expertise, and capital of a whole constellation of actors. Acumen’s niche here is, I believe, in finding and supporting innovation in the sector, and whenever it makes sense, to be a great partner to those organizations who need this challenge addressed in bold, new ways:  to corporations who know they must move in the direction of sustainability for a myriad of reasons, and to Foundations (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped us launch our agriculture portfolio), who have made it their business to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

Making sustainable supply chains the new norm and not just a niche or fad will require tremendous effort on the part of these diverse actors, and whole new systems that can support, expand and monitor sustainable practices. In all of this Acumen Fund aims to be a source of innovation through the business models we invest in. And always, we strive to be a champion for entrepreneurial solutions and for the entrepreneurs themselves, recognizing that transforming markets and raising standards can just as easily create new barriers for farmers and entrepreneurs that are already struggling.

At this event, I was humbled by the complexity of the issue and impressed by the commitment and expertise of all those gathered. I left convinced that Acumen Fund and our agriculture portfolio has a unique role to play through our continued investments in enterprises that unleash new ideas for a system that must evolve – for producers, for the planet, and for all those who consume and know they must do so in ways that are sustainable. That is, for you and me.

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A 30 Second MBA on Social Innovation

I was at a fascinating lunch discussion on social innovation hosted by Abbott Labs when FastCompany ‘s “30 Second MBA” team approached me and asked the question, “What is social innovation?” At Acumen Fund, we stress the fact that though we’ve learned valuable lessons from our successes in impact investing and leadership development, we’ve learned just as much – and sometimes even more – from our failures in these areas. That day I heard from several major corporations who were clear that the only way to evolve in an increasingly complex world was through innovation, but one of our biggest questions as a group was, where does innovation come from? My short (and I mean super-short) answer drew from our recent lesson on failure:

IF FAILING IS NOT AN OPTION, YOU’VE RULED OUT SUCCESS AS WELL

The response to this video has been great, and it’s made me think about my own relationship to risk and failure. And as I think about it, one thing is clear: talking about innovation, taking risks, and being willing to fail is a lot easier than actually doing it. When was the last time you took a big risk?

Originally posted on Acumen Fund’s blog

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